Monday, October 8, 2007

Teaching by Example

Christopher Dawson has an excellent article on ZDNet this morning about teaching children by example. He makes a good point about the importance of being active in our children's lives and teaching them how to behave, both online and offline, by example. Yes, that's difficult, but we are talking about parenting. :)

Kids learn from the examples we set

Saturday, October 6, 2007


As I've stated before, one purpose of this blog is to review products that may (or may not) be useful tools for parents. The first tool evaluated and reviewed is OpenDNS.

First some background: All computers on the Internet have a unique address associated with them. This numerical address usually consists of four sets of one to three digit numbers. For example, is the address of a web server for Apple, Inc. The Internet would be a far less useful thing if everyone had to remember numerical addresses for their email servers, favorite websites and so on. So a system called the Domain Name System, or DNS, was invented to provide a more human friendly way of referring to computers on the internet. So, in the above example, we can simply remember that the Apple, Inc. web site is at, rather than having to remember the numerical address.

Normally, your Internet Service Provider (ISP) handles this service for you. However, OpenDNS offers an alternative with an interesting twist. With a bit of manual configuration, you can tell your home computer to use the OpenDNS servers rather than those provided by your ISP. The twist is that you can configure your free OpenDNS account to block access to sites known to host various types of content.

To test the effectiveness of this service, I've used it for the last several weeks on my home network. Overall, I've been very pleased with the results. I would rate the effectiveness of the filtering to be quite good, but certainly not perfect. I was able to find many sites via Google and other search engines that were not blocked, though the vast majority were.

I should note that a clever kid could easily get around this filtering, but the same can be said for any other technological solution to content blocking. In the end, the Internet is such a huge place that it's impossible for any company to find and block ALL the content that one may find objectionable. Even with an impossibly perfect filter in place, a child may still be exposed to or seek out content at a friends house or other location. For my family, a reasonable technological measure like the content filtering in OpenDNS coupled with being an active parent is a good solution.

I want to end with a comment on one of the other claims made by the folks at OpenDNS. They claim to be faster than most ISP DNS server, though in my experience there was very little difference. However, your experience may be different. I would certainly be interested in hearing what kind of experiences others have with this product.

Review Overview
Product: OpenDNS
Pros: Free, easy to setup, reasonable content filtering options.
Cons: Filtering not perfect, relatively easy to circumvent.
Final Grade: B

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Good News, Bad News and a Stretched Metaphor

The more I investigate the parenting challenges discussed in this site, the more I realize just how pervasive these problems are. I've worked as a system administrator for twelve years and have dealt with the technical implications of computer security, but only recently have I started to see that much sought after "Big Picture."

A strange property of the Internet is that while it is built on fallible error prone equipment, the information stored in it is surprisingly resilient. This is because information, be it text, images or anything else that can be digitized is very easy to copy. So a computer hard drive can fail, or a network link can be broken, but if there are enough copies, the information is maintained. This is not entirely unlike how nature works. A given member of a species may meet an untimely death, but if enough of it's kin survive, then the species survives.

Arguments about copyright aside, this is generally a very good thing. The ease of copying makes digital information strong. However, as with all things, there is a dark side as well. Many pieces of information are best kept reasonably secret. Financial information, medical data and many other things are personal and not something we would generally be open about sharing. But this data is invariably digitized, and in the wrong hands, copies of this private data can be very damaging indeed.

Similarly, there are other forms of information that are unfortunately very resilient as well. The problems of child pornography, violent and other unhealthy content are widespread and nearly impossible to completely erradicate. As I've indicated before, removing one bad website means that it's content will likely show up somewhere else.

This is where I stretch my metaphore. In the United States, this past weekend was Labor Day so we had a three day weekend. My family performed our end of the summer tidy up to begin preparations for autumn. In our upstairs bathroom we have old fashion faucets with porcelain handles. I realized that yet again, it was time to clean the little spot of soap scum off the bottom of the handles. This crusty little spot is always there, just out of sight, and while I try to keep it clean, it invariably returns.

As I was scrubbing the crud off the faucet handles, I realized that the nasty content on the internet is like this soap scum. I do what I can to prevent it, but I can unfortunately never eradicate it forever. (I did warn you that this metaphor was about to be stretched!) Keeping a home computer up to date, installing anti-virus software and being mindful of your child's computer use keep the problems at bay and are simply part of the maintenance of our modern lifestyles.

Monday, August 27, 2007

There Ought to Be a Law

Any discussion concerning the challenges of parenting in the age of the Internet at some point usually involves someone will come out in favor of stronger laws to protect our children. While I can certainly relate to the urge to make things better, I'm also beginning to realize the full complexity of these problems.

First off, while I'm no legal expert, it seems to me that the existing laws do a reasonably effective job in this country. (See the US Department of Justice Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section website for a good overview of current federal laws) Child abuse is a problem that is actively worked on by our society and we have comprehensive laws that cover most if not all of these types of situations that involve communication technologies.

But it is those very technologies that present both the wonderful opportunity for learning and entertainment that also provide a mechanism for criminals to get around the laws of any one nation. While we may attempt to "run the bad guys out of town" in the United States, this usually means they simply set up shop elsewhere and their content is just as accessible. The sad part is that "elsewhere" is often in countries that we consider to be our strong allies. Many European and Asian nations have very permissive obscenity laws.

The US often puts pressure on other nations for economic reform that is in line with the supposed interests of our country. Economic issues are certainly important, but I feel it is time that we also begin a strong effort to work with our allies and trading partners to address both computer security and the threats to children online. This should be an issue at the forefront of our diplomatic efforts. Some progress is being made towards this goal, but much more could be done.

So I urge you to bring up this issue as we move into the next political season. Contact your congressman to voice your opinion on these matters. If enough of us make this a priority, I believe that sooner or later our government will respond.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

End User Education

I recently completed a very well designed course in web application security put on by the SANS Institute. My job at the University of Northern Iowa involves managing web servers, including online learning systems, general web servers and specialized web based application servers. As you might imagine, security is a large and growing aspect of my job. While the training focused manly on highly technical issues, one concept that came up again and again was that the most vulnerable part of the web is the end user.

In the IT industry, the end user is the consumer, the person sitting at their personal computer using the systems managed by system administrators like myself. Online criminals know that many, if not most, people using the web lack a basic understanding of the security threats present on the web. They will often use various techniques to scam people into giving up valuable personal information such as banking information, credit card numbers or other personal information. This is called phishing.

A survey paid for by Microsoft recently found that one in five online users have been tricked by these phishing scams. While there are a number of technical solutions that can help reduce the likelihood of falling prey to these online criminals, the ultimate solution is for people to change their behaviors online. Most people know about the dangers of visiting "the wrong part of town" and take reasonable precautions when they travel. However, most don't have any idea how to give themselves and their families a reasonably safe experience online.

This all ties in with another news story. A group of computer companies has joined forces with several educational organizations to propose that all school children be given training on safe behavior on the Internet. I think this is an excellent idea. As a society, we've had generally successful attempts made to reduce other dangers our children face, and if done properly, this could help to reduce the success of future phishing scams. Additionally, this may help make some progress in the fight against online predators and other crimes against children that involve computer technology.

While I strongly support any effort to educate our children in these issues, I also feel it's vital that we educate the parents as well. I'm a strong believer that education starts in the home. Parents must know the basics of safe online behavior if they have any hope of having their children understand these dangers. I am currently investigating ways to make this happen in my community. If you have any suggestions, please feel free to post them in the comments.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

The Seedy Side of the Internet

The situation I spoke of in my last post, Unwelcome Visitors brings to mind the often uncomfortable topic of online pornography. Since this blog focuses on technical issues that modern families face, it's probably best to get to this sooner than later.

I make no judgement on what consenting adults do with each other. In fact, I consider myself to be a very open minded and tolerant person. So I generally don't concern myself with what my fellow grown ups choose to view on their computers. It's their business and I respect their privacy.

However, some aspects of the seedy side of the Internet cross the line from naughty to out right illegal. In the United States and most other countries, it is illegal to present children with pornographic material of any kind. Additionally, any material that depicts children in sexual situations is also obviously illegal.

The FBI has a web site called the Innocent Images National Initiative devoted to this issue. The site contains a great deal of information on sexually related crimes against children. A great place to start is "A Parent's Guide to Internet Safety."

Another related site is the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. The NCMEC has been working to aid law enforcement in tackling the problem of missing and exploited children for over 20 years.

Finally, if you have information related to the sexual exploitation of children, be it online or in the rest of the world, please report it using the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children CyberTipline. Since the inception of the CyberTipline program, over 500,000 reports have been made and the associated information forwarded to the appropriate law enforcement offices.

You can also contact your local FBI Field Office with any such information.

In a future post, I will discuss the options available to parents to filter and otherwise deal with these issues.

Unwelcome Visitors

A good friend of mine recently had a situation with her family's home computer that is unfortunately all too common. Her computer was infected with what is known in the computer industry as malware. This is a blanket term used to describe many categories of "bad" software including computer viruses, adware and spyware. In my friend's case, her computer was spewing a stream of pornographic ads whenever she launched her web browser. In situations like this, I always ask if the victim has good backups, and if not, we make one as quickly as possible. Once all the important data has been backed up to a tape, CD/DVD or other removable media, it is time for the arduous task of reformatting the computer and performing a fresh install of the computer's operating system and applications.

So what can be done to prevent this unwanted intrusion in the first place?

The first place to start is to ensure that your computer is up to date with the latest patches, or bug fixes, from the vendor. Both Microsoft and Apple have easy to use mechanisms for keeping a system automatically up to date.

Next the system should be protected with a firewall. A firewall is a program that acts as a sort of security guard for your computer. Most prevent programs on your computer from interacting on the network without your permission and prevents outside systems from communicating with your computer in any way you have forbidden. There are several quality commercial firewall packages. Additionally, Microsoft now provides a free firewall with the latest version of Windows XP and Windows Vista. Apple also has an excellent firewall built into the Mac operating system.

Finally, we get to anti-virus and malware detection software. These programs scan your computer for known signs of an infection. They usually offer some mechanism for cleaning up the mess left behind by these unwelcome visitors, but I tend to err on the side of caution and do a reinstall after any infection. However, whether you reformat or allow the tool to clean things up the best it can, you need to know that there is a problem in the first place. The alerts these tools provide are often the first indication that you have a problem with your computer.

Whew! That was quite a bit of technical jargon all at once. In the future, I will look at each of these topics in greater detail and include some in depth reviews of various security related products. Please feel free to email me or leave a comment with suggestions or questions.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

The Beginning

Everything has a beginning.

Six years ago, my wife Joanna and I decided that it was time for us to become parents. The initial thought of raising a child terrified me like nothing else ever had. I was confident that I was many things: a computer geek, a science fiction fan, an environmentalist...sure, but a "Parent".. How could I ever possibly do a job like that?

Then our son Sam was born and I found that there simply wasn't time to worry about any of that anymore. My concerns soon turned to being as active a husband as I could and learning how to take care of a baby. A few years of sleep depravation and a seemingly endless stream of diaper changes alters one's perspective on life forever.

We now fast forward to 2007 and we are preparing to send our boy off to Kindergarten. As difficult as this first handful of years has been, I can now see that in many ways things get more complicated from here on out. And that is where this blog begins.

My goal is to document my progression as a digital parent. My son has an enthusiasm for science and technology that I most certainly recognize. I want to encourage that aspect of him as much as I possibly can. However, the world has changed since I was a nerdy kid growing up in Iowa. While the local library is still a favorite place for our family, the Internet winds it's way into nearly every aspect of our education and entertainment. This opens up opportunities that very few people ever dreamed of 30 years ago, but it also brings with it a whole host of challenges for the modern parent.

So this site will be where I share my thoughts on these new challenges. It will describe what I am doing for my family. I will review products and services, give my thoughts on various topics and hopefully aggregate useful information for other families.